The first stop of our ‘two weeks isn’t long enough’ tour of the Philippines was Donsol, Legazpi. It doesn’t really have a lot going on other than it’s main tourist attraction, whale shark interactions. We like all other tourists had arrived for exactly that.
Donsol is a small place with a few guesthouses in the downtown area but most accommodation options are in the form of beach resorts a few minutes away, much closer to the tourist centre where the action is. We chose to stay in the town where as you might have guessed it’s much cheaper also quite fun wandering round while getting stared at and saying hello back to the hundreds of shouting school kids.
We arranged to stay three nights in Donsol and the morning after arriving got straight on with what we had come to do.
After the 40 pence each journey to the tourist centre we signed up to be placed in a group, watched an instructional video and got kitted up with masks and fins ready to go and find some whale sharks.
Moments later we were being led to a boat by our guide ‘Bobby’ and some other tourists. It was explained to us early on that we would have to break some (most) of the rules we had seen in the video only moments before.
The main one being ”only one boat per whale shark”. Bobby explained that when the video was made there were over seventy whale sharks coming to Donsol during peak times. However, since tourism has become bigger numbers have been dropping every year as the sharks avoid the area.
Apparently this year there were only seven.
With more tourists and less whale sharks it would be impossible to follow the one boat rule as tourists would never see anything and stop coming.
Obviously this made us both feel terrible and pretty bad about being out on the water and basically hunting for one of the seven. The procedure seemed pretty clear, head to where the rest of the boats are because they must be there for a reason.
Sure enough that plan worked and we were soon being told to jump in the water. Almost immediately Bobby shouted at me to look straight down and although visibility wasn’t great I saw something coming towards me a few meters below. You hear whale sharks are big but it’s hard to imagine just how big until they are right there in front of you.
I stayed on the spot floating just watching while it passed underneath me before turning to start swimming with it as it had almost passed. Unfortunately that isn’t easy when five other boats have just dropped tourists into the water in front of you to do the same. Within seconds I had been consumed by a crowd of people, unable to move and very frustrated.
All I could do was climb back in the boat and wait for another opportunity. We seemed to get lucky with our boat crew who repeatedly dropped us in great positions away from the crowds. Both Kirsty and I were able to enjoy swimming along with a whale shark peacefully for a few minutes on a number of occasions and it was very special experience.
The fact is though it’s hard work and many times we were left floating around frustrated in the water. I was being pushed by people, had fins kicking me in the face and getting blocked off by non-swimmers huddled together in a big balls of life jackets. What are you doing in the water? If you can’t swim? you’re not going to see anything!!
On the whole it was a great experience but I’m left with mixed emotions. On one hand I’m glad I got the chance to see them so easily, Donsol practically guarantees seeing whale sharks. This may not be the case in a year or two though and that’s why on the other hand I feel bad about being involved in the tourism that’s forcing them away.
Next time I would rather just take my chances trying to see them on a dive somewhere. It may be nothing like as guaranteed but it would be a much better experience for the animal and myself.
And that’s exactly what I hoped to do the next day when I went out again with Bobby, this time with his dive shop.